Tillison County, Oklahoma—1938
“Bury me not on the lone prair . . . ie
where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free.
In a narrow grave—just six by three,
Oh, bury me not—”
athleen stopped singing abruptly when she rounded a bend in the lonely stretch of Oklahoma highway and saw a dilapidated old car sitting crossways in the road. Her hands gripped the wheel of her old Nash as her feet hit the clutch and the brake at the same time.
“Oh Lord! Hijackers!”
She had read about them, had even written about them while working for a year at a small paper in Liberal, Kansas. Now a hijacking was happening to her! She put the car in reverse and started backing up. Out of the brush beside the road a man sprang up and ran toward the car. Afraid to look away from him and watch where she was going, she began to zigzag. Then, to her horror, the back wheels of the car sank into the ditch beside the road. Quickly shifting gear into drive, she gunned the motor in an attempt to go forward. The wheels spun, digging deeper into the sandy soil.
The door beside her was flung open, and a big hairy hand gripped her wrist.
“Stop it! You’ll strip the gears.”
“Let go!” Kathleen jerked on her arm and tramped hard on the gas pedal. The engine roared.
“Stop or I’ll break your goddamn arm!”
She looked into a flabby, whiskered face. The man’s lips were drawn back showing tobacco-stained teeth. He twisted her arm cruelly.
“All right! All right!” she shouted.
She took her foot off the clutch. The car jerked and the motor sputtered and died. When she was pulled from under the steering wheel, she fell to her knees next to two pairs of run-down boots planted in the red dirt beside her.
“What she got in there?” The second man peered into the back window of the car. “Jesus! It’s loaded with stuff.”
“We gotta get this thin’ outta the goddamn ditch. You stupid-ass woman! I never met one a ya that had the brains of a suck-egg mule.” He reached into the car and snatched Kathleen’s purse off the seat. “Got any money?”
“Liar.” He pulled two ten-dollar bills out of her purse. “This all you got?”
“No! I’ve got a dozen gold bars in the bottom!” Anger was replacing her fear. She had lost one of her shoes when she was pulled from the car. She reached down to get it.
“Watch her!” The first man snarled and gave her a push that sent her reeling backward. He poked the two ten-dollar bills into his shirt pocket, tossed aside the thick pillow Kathleen used on the back of the seat so that her feet could reach the pedals, and slid under the wheel. “Get back there and push. Both of you.”
“If you think I’m going to help you steal my car . . . you’re crazy as a cross-eyed mule!”
“And if ya know what’s good fer ya, you’ll shut yore mouth and do what yo’re told.”
“Lippy, ain’t she?” The second man was shorter and had a big belly. He wasn’t much taller than Kathleen, who was five feet and four inches. He leered at her. “She ain’t hardly got no titties a’tall, but she shore does have pretty red hair.” When he reached out to touch her breasts, Kathleen’s temper boiled over. She balled her fist and swung, hitting him square in the mouth.
“Ouch! You . . . bitch!” He dabbed at the blood on his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and lifted his hand to hit her back. She drew back her fist; too angry to notice her sore knuckles, she prepared to fight.
“Touch me again and I’ll . . . knock your head off!”
“Whapsy-do! If I had time, I’d take the fight outta ya.”
“Goddammit, Webb.” The man in the car turned the key, and the motor responded. “Stop messin’ with ’er and help me get this thin’ outta the ditch. Push, goddamn it! We’ve got to get out of here ’fore somebody comes.”
The gears were shifted into drive and then into reverse to rock the car. The spinning wheels sent sand and dirt flying out behind. The wheels almost reached solid ground, then rolled back into the hole.
not pushin’,” Webb shouted, his face splotchy with anger and exertion.
Kathleen moved up onto the road and searched the horizon for something or somebody. The only movement in all that vast landscape was a few white clouds drifting lazily. A dozen scattered steers grazed on the sparse dry grass. There wasn’t a car in sight.
Then she saw something coming over a small rise. At first she thought it was another steer; seconds later, she recognized a man on horseback riding across the prairie toward the steers. After a quick glance back at the two men arguing beside her car, she lifted both arms and waved wildly to the horseman and pointed toward the car. The rider gigged the horse and was less than two hundred feet away when Webb came back to the rear of the car.
“Shit!” he shouted. “Somebody’s comin’.”
The other man got out and looked over the top of the car. The cowboy’s horse jumped the ditch and trotted toward Kathleen. She hurriedly got between it and the hijackers.
“They’re stealing my car!” she exclaimed, without even looking at the man’s face. Anger made her voice shrill.
In the brief silence that followed, the man who had jerked Kathleen from the car eyed the rifle that lay across the rider’s thighs.
“Ah . . . naw. We is just a helpin’ the lady get her car outta the ditch.”
“You . . . lyin’ son of a jackass!” Kathleen yelled. “You’re stealing it. Make him give back my twenty dollars.” She looked up at the rider and almost groaned. He looked to be not much more than a boy.
“Give it back.” Young he might be, but he spoke with quiet authority.
“I don’t have her damn money.”
“It’s in his shirt pocket.” The rifle, more than the boy, gave Kathleen courage. “Two ten-dollar bills. I was trying to get away from them when I went into the ditch. See. Their car is blocking the road.”
The end of the rifle moved. “Toss the money on the seat.”
“She gave it to me. It’s pay for getting her out of the ditch.”
“Liar! You took it out of my purse.”
“I’m not telling you again,” the cowboy warned.
“Good thing you got that gun, boy.” The hijacker threw the bills on the seat.
“Both of you move out and stand in back of the car.”
“Make them help me get my car out of the ditch. It’s their fault I’m stuck.”
“Get under the wheel.” The end of the rifle stayed on the two hijackers. Before Kathleen started the motor, she heard the boy say, “Take off your shirts and put them under that right wheel, then lift and push when she guns the motor.”
“I’m not puttin’ my good shirt under that wheel.”
“No? Would you rather I put it under there with you in it?”
“It’ll be ruint.”
“Don’t look like it would be much of a loss to me.”
“Don’t I know you?”
“Maybe. Are you going to help the lady, or am I going to see if I can shoot the button off the top of that cap you’ve got on that bump on your shoulders?”
A few minutes later the Nash was up on the road, and the hijackers were putting their shirts back on.
“Which way are you going, lady?” the cowboy asked.
“Rawlings.” Kathleen left the motor idling and stood beside the car.
“You two stupid clods get in your car and head back up the road.”
“Are you letting them go? I want them arrested.”
The cowboy glanced at the girl. Her fiery red hair, thick and curly, was a halo around her head. It was what had drawn his eyes when he first came over the hill to see about his steers. There were not many redheaded women here in Indian country. Her blue eyes sparkled angrily. He noticed the heavy sprinkling of freckles across her nose. Lord! It had been a long time since he’d seen a girl with freckles on her nose.
Ignoring her question, he walked his horse behind the men until they reached their car.
“We got a flat tire,” Webb complained.
“Don’t you have a tire patch, you lazy son of a bitch? It’s easier to steal the lady’s car than sweat a little. Is that it?”
One of them muttered something about a blanket-ass. Any other time the cowboy would have made him eat the words. Now he just wanted to get rid of the two of them. He glanced in the car to make sure that no guns were on the seats, then motioned for them to get in. He waited while they got it started and watched as the car bounced along the road on the flat tire. When it passed the Nash and headed away from Rawlings, he went back to Kathleen and spoke as if there had not been a ten-minute interruption in their conversation.
“How do you suggest we get them to the sheriff? I know who they are. I’ll see that he knows about this.” He slid his rifle into the scabbard attached to the saddle and tilted his hat back.
He was considerably older than Kathleen had at first thought. Inky black hair, dark eyes, and high cheekbones spoke of Indian heritage. He was tall, judging by the length of his stirrups, and lean. She could picture him on the cover of a dime Western novel: horse rearing, guns blazing.
“I really appreciate your help. They would have taken my car and left me stranded here.”
“Maybe not. They might have taken you with them.”
“They’d a had a fight on their hands,” she said spiritedly.
“I reckon they would’ve.”
Her eyes were the color of denim britches after they’ve been washed a hundred times.
He smiled, and she realized that he was very attractive in a dark and mysterious sort of way. The thought entered her mind that she was out here on this lonely stretch of road with this cowboy, and he had a gun. It hadn’t occurred to her to be afraid of
“Well . . . thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” He tipped his hat.
Kathleen got in the car, waved, and drove away. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the cowboy still sitting his horse in the middle of the road.
Johnny Henry watched the car until it was out of sight. Why hadn’t she told him who she was? Probably she saw no need to introduce herself to a cowboy out here in the middle of the prairie, even if he had saved her pretty little hide from a couple of no-good hijackers. He had known the minute he saw that red hair and the Nash car that she was Kathleen Dolan and that she was on her way to Rawlings to work at the
A week earlier Johnny had gone over to Red Rock to visit his sister, Henry Ann, and her family. Her husband, Tom, had had a letter from his brother, Hod, in Kansas telling him that their niece, Kathleen, would be coming down to Rawlings. She had been working for a year in Liberal, and for some reason known only to her, had decided to use some of the money left to her by her grandparents to buy into the paper at Rawlings.
“She wants to see and do a lot of things before she settles down,” Hod had written. “She’s twenty-six years old. Guess she’s old enough to do as she pleases.”
She didn’t look to be that old, Johnny thought now. That would make her a year older than he was. She had looked to be about twenty-one or -two.
Tom had told Johnny that Duncan Dolan, the eldest of the Dolan boys, had gone to Montana when he was a youth and married a widow from Iowa. He’d had a fierce love for the woman and their child. Many of his letters were lovingly centered on his little girl whose red hair had been inherited from her mother. After Duncan was killed in an accident, his daughter and wife had gone back to Iowa to live with her parents, and for a while the Dolans had lost track of Kathleen. Several years ago she had written that her mother and grandparents were gone and she wanted to know her father’s family.
Johnny had not given her more than a thought or two . . . until today. Now he wondered if he could ever get her out of his mind. He chuckled as he watched the car disappear. Not many women would set out alone to drive more than two hundred miles across country. Miss Kathleen Dolan had spunk to go along with that red hair.
A sudden burst of happiness sent his heart galloping like a runaway horse.
• • •
Rawlings, Oklahoma, was like most other towns in 1938. Jobs were scarce, farm prices had risen only a little since the bottom price for wheat had been twenty-five cents a bushel, oats ten cents and cotton five cents a pound back in 1932. Most of the cotton farmers were allowing their fields to go to grass to keep the soil from blowing away in the dust storms and were trying to make a living raising cattle. Some of them were packing up and following Highway 66 to the “promised land” in California where fertile fields provided a better prospect of jobs.
A steady stream of hobos looking for work or a handout came through Rawlings daily, seeking the community soup kitchen. The town had survived partly because a hide-tanning plant had opened several years ago and now employed more than fifty people. Hides were shipped from the meatpacking plants in Oklahoma City and Wichita Falls.